The Significance of Artistic Observation in Medical Education

Jefferson humanities course strengthens empathy, understanding of patients and emotional intelligence.

Studies have shown that physicians with exposure and background in the humanities are more empathetic, ethical, expressive and even healthier. Recently, medical school curricula across the country have begun to emphasize communication, teamwork, problem-solving and humanistic care. The dichotomous view of the sciences as a separate entity from art and literature is becoming obsolete.

My preclinical schedule at Sidney Kimmel Medical College consisted of lectures, exams, case-based group learning and clinical skills practice with standardized patients. Amid a seemingly science-focused curriculum, however, was mandatory longitudinal exposure to the humanities. We were free to choose from a dozen course options that piqued our interest. As a native of Washington, D.C., and a frequent museumgoer, I chose “The Art of Observation” as one of my humanities courses.

Headshot of Esika Savsan

Medical student Esika Savsani chose “The Art of Observation” as one of her humanities courses. “Mere hours in an art museum can truly change one’s perspective in medicine,” she writes.

“The Art of Observation” course took place at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It emphasized the parallels between art and medicine, in particular, the value of observational astuteness. Sessions at the museum taught us to observe art and photographs to recognize patterns and discern the tone and mood of each piece with the goal of heightening our emotional intelligence.

At first, it felt unnatural to stare at a painting for 15 minutes in silence; nevertheless, I continued to notice new characteristics in each painting, including previously overlooked colors, movements, shading, height and texture.

Yale School of Medicine’s Dr. Irwin Braverman developed “The Art of Observation” course in the late 1990s after discovering that medical students’ observational skills can be enhanced through visual training, a practice that involves looking at paintings and verbalizing one’s findings.

Medical Students looking at artwork
“The Art of Observation” course, which takes place at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, emphasizes the parallels between art and medicine. (Photos by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

A follow-up study found that medical students who described paintings based on visual evidence scored higher on a test that required a detailed description of photographed disease states, as compared to their peers who did not take the art course.

Since the release of Dr. Braverman’s studies, many medical schools have begun to incorporate art courses into their curricula. In 2019, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center published a study regarding their “Art of Observation” course, with three principal findings among participants: heightened observational skills, a reduction in burnout and development of empathy. Each of these three outcomes could have tangible effects on the practices of future clinicians. (With the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, University researchers have been at the forefront of measuring empathy in medical students, residents and practicing physicians.) 

In the field of radiology, for example, trainees who study fine arts earlier in their training are better able to find abnormalities with their enhanced perceptive skills. What’s more, art-based teaching allows clinicians to explore emotional experiences in medicine to enhance their empathy and connect with patients. Finally, studies have shown that art therapy significantly reduces burnout in healthcare workers and subsequently promotes resilience.

When viewing radiology images, I can appreciate the small details on a study and synthesize them in context to tell a broader patient story.

In the practice of medicine, fine details and broad concepts are intertwined; detail-oriented observational skills are combined with empathic emotional connection to obtain a holistic patient view. My personal experience in “The Art of Observation” course has already had far-reaching impacts on both my medical education as well as my appreciation for art.

When I first looked at a painting in the past, I focused on specific figures with extravagant clothing or large trees in the background; now, after several minutes of absorbing a painting, I can transform a seemingly still image into a dynamic story.

In my medical practice, I’ve also noticed several changes: When viewing radiology images, for example, I can appreciate the small details on a study and synthesize them in context to tell a broader patient story. In my case-based learning group, “The Art of Observation” course helped me develop stronger observational skills, as I now more often notice small changes in lab values and clinical picture nuances.

Finally, my practice in the clinic has been similarly transformed. I still begin my visits by asking targeted questions regarding a patient’s chief complaint: “When did your pain start? Does your pain radiate anywhere? Can you describe what the pain feels like?”

Med students looking at art work
The course helped medical student Esika Savsani develop stronger observational skills. She now more often notices small changes in lab values and clinical picture nuances.

Thereafter, however, I have found comfort in applying details from the physical exam and history to ask questions that I previously would not have considered. These skills have allowed me to better formulate a cohesive picture of a patient’s presentation to understand the broader context of their health.

Medical students are thrust into a world filled with the humanities regardless of whether they previously appreciated the arts. Art and medicine are inextricably linked, and medical students benefit from having art-based curricula incorporated into their education.

This experience in the humanities continues to strengthen my empathy, understanding of patients and emotional intelligence. Mere hours in an art museum can truly change one’s perspective in medicine.

Esika Savsani is a medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from in-Training.

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